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Oroonoko: Civilization vs. Barbarism

Updated on January 6, 2013

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko presents the reader with both the civilized world of Christian Europeans, and the comparatively barbaric world of pagan aboriginals. Characters and people in general throughout the novel stand as representatives of these two worlds, and it is through their actions and convictions, as well as the reconciliation between their actions and convictions, that the novel suggests a far greater potential for dishonour in Christians than that of those who do not follow religion.

In the beginning of the novel, Behn describes the natives of Surinam with apparent reverence for the virtue they express, and the pagan ideology that she ascribes to them:

These people represented to me an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin; and it is most evident and plain that simple Nature is the most harmless, inoffensive and virtuous mistress. It is she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the world than all the inventions of man; religion would here but destroy that tranquility they possess by ignorance, and laws would but teach them to know offence, of which now they have no notion. (Behn 11).

This statement asserts that the natives of Surinam are morally superior, for they are perfectly innocent and harmonious without religion and laws. In fact, the mere notion of the religion and laws necessary for social order in the civilized world would corrupt the natives’ state of purity and innocence. Therefore, in this case, the pagan ways of the natives are clearly elevated above the artificial notions of religion exemplified by civilization.

While Oroonoko is not necessarily a part of barbarian society, he does exemplify their notion of innate goodness and honour without the necessity of religion. Behn claims that the Christian notion of God is his least favourite subject when they are speaking with one another, and she concludes that “one could not make him understand what faith was” (Behn 49). It follows directly after this conclusion that Behn mentions Oroonoko’s preference for the company of women, for he does not drink like most other men there. Not only does he not drink, he is described as unable to drink (Behn 49). Therefore, despite his lack of faith in God, he has a personal prohibition against alcohol which is self-regulated and based on his own sense of virtue. Had it been that the men of a supposedly Christian society did not drink due to religious convictions, Oroonoko would still be the more virtuous party for it would be of his own self-control, rather than the fear of divine judgement.

Explicit attention is drawn to the notion of Christian honour versus pagan honour when Oroonoko promises to the captain of the ship, by whom he was betrayed, that he will be perfectly civil if released from his bindings. Ironically, despite Oroonoko’s deep sense of honour, the captain “could not resolve to trust a heathen he said, upon his parole, a man that had no sense or notion of God that he worshipped” (Behn 39). The irony in this case is that the Christian captain, despite the value he places upon the worship of God, is the one who not only bound Oroonoko and the other ship guests, but he did so through an exceptionally dishonourable display of deceit. In his response to the captain’s sentiments, Oroonoko draws attention to the disregard for honour exemplified by the Christians in the novel. He argues that when a man goes against God, there is no obvious or immediate consequence, but when a man goes against his own personal sense of honour, he is immediately shamed and dishonoured to a painful degree (Behn 39). Therefore, we can see how much more weight the novel places on an innate sense of virtue as opposed the theoretical virtues of Christians, who have a consistent disregard for honour throughout the novel.

The case of the Frenchman Jamoan, who was exiled from France for questioning established religious doctrine (Behn 35), further explores the notion that Christian honour is more fickle than innate honour. Behn writes that “though he was a man of little religion, he had admirable morals and a brave soul” (Behn 35). The fact that he has a strong moral sense is not sufficient for acceptance in his society, when Christians are ironically portrayed as the least honourable people in the novel.

It is toward the end of the novel that Oroonoko makes his strongest statements against the Christian notion of honour. When he is rallying the other slaves to rise up against the oppression of their holders, Oroonoko likens the supposedly civilized Christians to animals: “Shall we render obedience to such a degenerate race, who have no one human virtue left to distinguish them from the vilest creatures” (Behn 62). Therefore, despite the religious background on which the civilized society in this instance is based, they are considered to be at the level of mere animals, and therefore even less civilized than barbarian society. The notion of how little weight religion holds for civilized society in terms of honour is further touched upon when Oroonoko asserts that the virtues of Christianity are disregarded by those who supposedly practice it while he states that “no people professed so much, none performed so little” (Behn 66). The point here is that the civilized Christians may have a formal set of morals and virtues through their religion, but the uncivilized barbarians have a personally inscribed code of honour that Oroonoko, for example, carries as part of his ultimate identity. He goes on to claim that slaves are “whipped into the knowledge of the Christian gods to be the vilest of all creeping things, to learn to worship such deities as had not power to make them just, brave or honest” (Behn 66). Oroonoko is clearly pointing out the fact that honour and virtue are not automatically requisite to those who carry a Christian title; that religion is not a ticket to such traits, so to speak.

Behn’s Oroonoko presents the reader with a world in which the civilized advent of Christianity does not promote a personal sense of honour and virtue as a simple innate sense of honour and virtue does. This notion comes through in the beliefs and corresponding actions of the characters in the novel; the frequent demonstrations of dishonour by the Christian characters, and the honourable actions of non-Christian characters, particularly Oroonoko himself.

Work Cited

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

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